Article Courtesy of The
Tampa Bay Times
Published September 9, 2016
Palm Harbor attorney Angela Morton Armstrong charged
hefty fees to handle bankruptcy cases for people hoping to shed their
debts and make a fresh start.
There was just one problem, records show: She collected the money but
did little if any work.
After numerous clients complained, Armstrong was
suspended from practicing law in 2014 and again last year. Finally, in
April, she was disbarred.
Armstrong is among
48 Tampa Bay lawyers and 430 statewide who have been
slapped with that draconian punishment since 2011. The
most recent were three Tampa lawyers permanently
disbarred this year — two last week and one in January —
for setting up a DUI sting of the opposing counsel in a
highly publicized trial.
"Those set of facts were very unique and the (Florida
Supreme) Court in its recent opinion even commented that
this was unique even to them,'' said Adria Quintela,
director of the Florida Bar's Department of Lawyer
But while the justices blasted the trio for especially
"shocking'' and "unethical'' conduct, the 427 other
disgraced lawyers also taint a profession that the
public holds in generally low regard. (Lawyer jokes are
legion: Why won't sharks attack lawyers? A: Professional
"I think in every profession there are bad apples, and
lawyers are no different from any other profession,''
Quintela said. "We at the Bar take our role extremely
seriously in doing the best we can do to protect the
public, and most of the time we are very successful in
Pinellas prosecutor and private attorney Aaron Slavin, center,
walks out of the courtroom after pleading guilty to trafficking
oxycodone pills on Jan. 23, 2012. The former Pinellas-Pasco
prosecutor agreed to a three-year prison sentence after pleading
Every year, the Bar gets thousands of complaints
about lawyers; this fiscal year alone, it has opened 4,613 new cases.
"A number''' — Quintela couldn't say how many — never make it past the
grievance committee, a volunteer panel of attorneys and lay people who
decide whether there is probable cause that a lawyer violated Bar rules.
If the committee does find probable cause, charges are filed with the
state Supreme Court. It appoints a referee — a county or circuit judge —
who hears witnesses, receives evidence and recommends discipline, if
any. The lawyer and the Bar's governing board can appeal the
recommendation, but the Supreme Court's decision on guilt and discipline
Lawyers in trouble often turn to Tampa attorney Scott Tozian.
Over the course of a 38-year career, Tozian estimates, he has
represented as many as 4,000 fellow members of the Bar. The way they
react to complaints runs the gamut, he said.
"We have people who have relatively minor problems; they say, 'You are
the doctor, you take care of it' and I don't hear from them very often,
or they 're nervous Nellies who call me three times a week,'' Tozian
said. "It just depends on the personality of the client. I have had
clients who were in relatively hot water who didn't show the kind of
concern you would think someone would in that situation.''
Florida's highest court can impose a range of punishments, including
relatively minor ones like a public reprimand. The most serious
penalties are a five-year disbarment and permanent disbarment. In
general, the justices are toughest on lawyers who steal from clients.
"It goes to the core of the attorney-client relationship, which is
trust,'' Quintela said. "There are a lot of things that an attorney can
do that maybe were a mistake. But it's hard to justify an intentional
act, and theft is one of those intentional acts of misconduct that the
court and the Bar take very seriously.''
Lawyers disbarred for five years can apply for readmission but only
about 5 percent do, the Bar says. So how do they make a living once
their legal careers are over?
Tozian had one client who became a long-distance truck driver. Another
bagged groceries. Some go to work in law firms but are not allowed to
handle money or have any contact with clients.
The three recently disbarred Tampa lawyers — Stephen Diaco, Robert Adams
and Adam Filthaut — have not indicated their plans. Filthaut, though, is
listed in corporate records as a managing member of a relatively new
Tampa company that repairs auto glass.
For some lawyers, prison was the next step after disbarment.
Among her many violations of Bar rules, Brandon attorney Jennifer Aycock
Bonifield failed to account for nearly $900,000 of a client's money, a
referee found. Bonifield was convicted of grand theft last year and
spent eight months in state prison.
In January, Michael Crowder, a Bradenton lawyer and U.S. Army judge
advocate, was disbarred after his conviction on federal wire and mail
fraud charges. While attending the University of Florida law school
under an Army program, the FBI said, Crowder sold coins and precious
metals to customers in the United States and abroad but failed to
deliver the merchandise. Among his excuses: He had been ill, his
inventory had stolen and his suppliers didn't have the items.
Crowder, who was ordered to pay his victims $1.2 million in restitution,
is serving a five-year sentence in a federal correctional institute in
And in Pinellas County, former prosecutor-turned-private attorney Aaron
Slavin was disbarred in 2013 after he pleaded guilty to taking 250
oxycodone pills from a client as payment for legal services. (The client
turned out to be a police informer. ) Slavin served about two-thirds of
a three-year prison sentence.
None of the disbarred lawyers mentioned in this story could be reached
for comment. And even while she was still in practice, Armstrong, the
bankruptcy lawyer, proved elusive, records show.
Some of the more than 20 clients who complained about Armstrong said she
failed to show up at bankruptcy hearings or stopped communicating with
them after taking their money. Several others said they paid her $1,000
or more to handle their bankruptcy cases but that she never filed the
petition needed to get the case started. Even the Bar had a hard time
getting her to respond to its letters to her.
The 40-year-old Armstrong is also being sued by a Clearwater couple.
They thought she was "zealously and effectively'' representing them in a
foreclosure case, only to discover she had been suspended from
practicing law at the time. They later lost their house in a foreclosure
Records show Armstrong hasn't responded to the lawsuit, either.
Get the facts
To see if a member of the Florida Bar has been disciplined for
professional misconduct in the past 10 years, go the Florida Bar website
The Florida Bar— and click on "find a lawyer.'' Type in the lawyer's name and that will
bring up links to Bar and state Supreme Court documents related to the
The Bar operates the Attorney Consumer Assistance Program, which handles
complaints and may be able to resolve problems before a complaint is
filed. The ACAP telephone number is toll-free: 1-866-352-0707.